Here in Washington the chatter among the members of the comentariat over the last few days has been about the upcoming Rapture this Saturday. This is when Catholics such as myself, as well as Jews, Mormons, atheists, and so on, will be left to fend for ourselves while select members of the “sola scriptura” crowd get to float off into Heaven with Jesus. Fortunately, I will be at a bachelor party with some other Catholic fellows at Morton’s, so at least there will be some comfort in our commiseration.
While watching a documentary on the “Silver Pharaoh” last evening, dealing with an ancient Egyptian ruler and his tomb, I reflected a bit more about the understanding of the afterlife as portrayed in art. Psusennes I was buried in a magnificent solid silver coffin inlaid with gold around 1001 B.C.; it is the only mummy case of its kind ever discovered in Egypt. While silver was less expensive at the time than gold, the enormous quantities needed to create an entire giant coffin, and the fact that silver is not as malleable a material as gold, means that the Egyptians’ project to try to cheat death and chaos in this object is all the more astonishing.
For all of its remarkable beauty as an object of course, there is still something about it which seems derivative and a little bit off the beam, particularly as compared to the high art of the Amarna period, or the powerful but sensual lines of work done under Ramses II. All of the right iconography to protect the body of the pharaoh appears, though there does not seem to be the same confidence in the Egyptian understanding of the hereafter that we see in earlier works of art. Yet because of its silver color, it led me to think of another man’s quasi-silver, quasi-funerary monument, located a bit closer to home, and perhaps an even more appropriate object to use for reflecting on the end of days.
The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly – or “The Throne of the Third Heaven” for short – is perhaps one of the most bizarre and idiosyncratic holdings of the Smithsonian Institution. Presently located at the American Art Museum, though not fully displayed due to its enormous size, The Throne of the Third Heaven consists of a 7-foot tall throne, along with dozens of other objects from altar tables to pulpits, all created to mirror one another symmetrically, and all created out of junk. It was a project fashioned over a period of about two decades by a janitor here in Washington, D.C. by the name of James Hampton.
Mr. Hampton was a deeply religious, private man, who experienced what he described as personal visitations of God and the angels. Although a Protestant, he was clearly aware of and informed by Catholic theology and iconography, albeit in an off-the-rails sort of way. Indeed, of his last dated visitations, he wrote “This design is proof of the Virgin Mary descending [sic] into Heaven, November 2, 1950. It is also spoken of by Pope Pius XII.” This just so happened to be the day that the Pope declared the Dogma of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven. You can read more about Mr. Hampton and his bizarre project in this excellent essay published by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
While the materials used may have been different, and a pharaoh’s coffin is not the same as an Evangelical tableau, there is a relationship between the 3,000-year-old coffin and the 40-year old art assemblage, for both address questions of death and the afterlife. In the case of the Egyptians, the preservation of the body of the king ensured an afterlife for everyone. In the case of Mr. Hampton, his monument was his preservation: a testament to his following private revelations, which would thereby serve as a kind of gate pass to the Kingdom of Heaven. We may reject the Egyptian and the Evangelical with respect to their views on death and judgment, but we cannot ignore the art projects they undertook to share their views.
Were Mr. Hampton still about, naturally he would be very excited to see what will happen come Saturday. Yet I suspect Psusennes I would be excited as well. The ancient Egyptians, like us, really had no idea what comes next. Ultimately, we each walk the long corridor of death alone, and what stands on the other side is a matter of faith for absolutely everyone – for atheists, too, have faith. Theirs is a faith that there is nothing at the end of that corridor, but of course they have no way of being certain about it. I suspect a number of the ones who have gone before us have had a rather unpleasant surprise.